Deep-sea explorers captured the first ever photos of a long-lost Japanese shipwreck from World War II’s Battle of Midway

The IJN Akagi’s gun tub and gun director positioned below the flight deck.

Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA

Maritime researchers recently surveyed a World War II-era shipwreck that was only discovered in 2019.A team led by the Ocean Exploration Trust also assessed two other wrecks from the Battle of Midway.Japan lost more than 3,000 men during the 1942 fight, while the US lost a little more than 350.

Maritime explorers have tread new ground in the Northern Pacific Ocean with assessments of three World War II-era shipwrecks, including a never-before surveyed Japanese aircraft carrier that sank more than 80 years ago during the Battle of Midway.

A team of scientists, historians, and archeologists from multiple agencies and countries came together this month to explore the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, located northwest of the Hawaiian islands, where three historic shipwrecks lie.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument


“The depths involved to get to these sites really require specific capacity. It’s no easy challenge even with advanced equipment,” Hans Van Tilburg, a maritime archeologist and historian with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, told Insider in a Tuesday interview.

127 mm twin anti-aircraft gun mounted below the flight deck of IJN Akagi.

Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA

The team led by Ocean Exploration Trust aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus conducted the first visual survey of Imperial Japanese Navy Akagi, which was first located in 2019 during a mapping project.

Researchers used a remotely operated vehicle to reach the shipwreck, which lies more than 5,400 meters beneath the ocean’s surface, Van Tilburg said. From the Nautilus vessel on the ocean’s surface, the team was able to spend 14 hours on the seafloor surveying the wreck in a noninvasive way, he said, making a careful perimeter around the ship’s hull to collect video images and peer into the ship itself.

The 855-foot-long aircraft carrier Akagi was struck by several aerial bombs during the Battle of Midway, a major naval fight between the US and Japan in June 1942 that changed the course of the war in the Pacific. As fires burned aboard the ship, Japanese destroyers ultimately scuttled the ship to keep it from being captured.

The Japanese flagship aircraft carrier Akagi pictured underway in the summer of 1941.

Naval History and Heritage Command

“There is historical and archaeological information that tells us about the impacts of the attacks and the efforts these crews made to save their ships,” Van Tilburg said. “These loyal crew members did everything they could.”

In addition to a survey of the Akagi, researchers also captured the first detailed views of the USS Yorktown, which was first located 25 years ago, and a comprehensive survey of the Japanese ship Kaga, both of which also sank during the Battle of Midway.

Standing tall above the leaning flight deck, the shipʻs island is the most prominent feature on USS Yorktown, heavily damaged by intense fire and heat.

Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA

The Japanese lost more than 3,000 men during the fight, while the US lost a little more than 350.

“Knowing the background history and then seeing the record of that destruction and loss of life was a very moving experience and in a lot of ways difficult to absorb and process,” Van Tilburg said.

The expedition live streamed the video surveys of the three ships from the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, Megan Cook, the expedition’s co-leader and director of education and outreach at Ocean Exploration Trust, said.

“We brought tens of thousands of people down to these sites with us to be able to experience it and share their stories and pay their respects,” Cook told Insider.

Researchers onboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus watch a wreck being surveyed.

Ocean Exploration Trust

Viewers following along at home included people whose family members served on the ships and helped build the vessels, Cook said. The expedition also worked closely with native Hawaiian cultural practitioners on board who led protocol ceremonies to honor the area and those who died there, Van Tilburg said.

The September mission was a joint effort between the US and Japan, a meaningful partnership given the history at play, Cook and Van Tilburg said.

“Eighty-one years have gone by and the battle is over. We have been friends with Japan before and after the war much longer than the period where we’ve been adversaries,” Van Tilburg said.

“This isn’t about who won or lost anymore,” he added. “This is about remembering the losses of the young airmen and sailors.”

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